What do you think of when you think of Andrew Lloyd Webber? If it’s not a 15-year-old Jack Black comedy about a bunch of repressed school kids who find their voice covering an AC/DC song, well, you need to make plans to see School of Rock, presented courtesy of BBVA Compass Broadway at the Hobby Center.
In this touring, Laurence Connor-directed production, Rob Colletti plays Dewey, a man with only his love of rock ‘n’ roll, a van, and an unpaid-for room in his best friend Ned’s house to his name. Out of a job, kicked out of his band, and soon to be without a roof over his head (Patty, Ned’s girlfriend, has given him 30 days to come up with the rent or get out), Dewey is suddenly offered a job as a substitute teacher – well, Ned gets offered the job, but Dewey answers the phone and recognizes an opportunity (and its $950-a-week paycheck) when he sees one. He’s pretends to be Ned and sets off to Horace Green, a fancy prep school that boasts “Harvard, or Cornell at worst,” for its pupils. His plan? All-day recess, no achievement, and easy money. That is, until he hears his kids in music class. Dewey hatches a plan to turn his class into a band with the ultimate goal of “sticking it to the man” – and his former bandmates – at a “Battle of the Bands” contest.
School of Rock may feature a domesticated message of child empowerment through heavy metal guitar riffs and screeching wails, but it’s still more like Twisted Sister’s 1984 “I wanna rock” call to action and less like Ronald Reagan trying to co-opt The Boss's "Born in the U.S.A." It’s an easily digestible anti-establishment pill with undeniable pedigree, with Lloyd Webber’s score, a book by Downton Abbey’s Julian Fellowes (rather faithfully adapted from Mike White’s 2003 screenplay), and lyrics by Glenn Slater. School of Rock won’t win any awards for originality, but its charm is undeniable – genuinely funny gags and one-liners, an amazingly talented cast of kids and, at its center, Colletti, holding it all together.
Colletti is tasked with embodying the “rock ‘n’ roll spirit” while in the literal body of a bum. Dewey is slovenly, careless and rude, and it would be a toss-up whether to pity his delusions or admire his commitment if not for Colletti’s strong grasp on his character’s humanity. His excitement is infectious when he realizes that he is not alone and that he still has a shot at making his dreams a reality, all while unintentionally growing as a person.
Opposite Colletti is Lexie Dorsett Sharp as Ms. Mullins, the rigid principal keeping a watchful eye on Dewey. It’s obvious that she will become an ally once we see that the music (and “Rosalie the Rock Chick”) lives inside her, too, and she turns in a lovely performance of “Where Did the Rock Go?” during the second act. The characters that Matt Bittner (Ned) and Emily Borromeo (Patty) play are painted in broader strokes, but they still do well; Borromeo is especially good at engendering the audiences ill will throughout the show.
But it’s the kids who really deserve their moment in the spotlight. The band (Theodora Silverman, Gilberto Moretti-Hamilton, Phoenix Schuman and Theo Mitchell-Penner) really get their chances to show off and it’s worth noting, and emphatically as Lloyd Webber does in a pre-recorded message that starts the show, that “yes, they do” play their own instruments. It’s a testament to the show that it feels like all the children – all 12 members of Dewey’s class – get a turn, whether they’re jamming in the band, singing backup, part of the crew or simply ready with a well-timed faint.
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School of Rock and its music is really at its best when the kids are front and center, like during “You’re in the Band,” a particularly fun number formatted as the requisite audition montage, “If Only You Would Listen,” and “Stick It to the Man.” That said, “I’m Too Hot for You,” which pops up a couple of times courtesy of Dewey’s former band, is a perfect example in its mediocrity of late-'80s metal music – even in the way that it’s annoyingly catchy. Music director Martin Axe does well leading all his musicians in bringing to life Lloyd Webber’s orchestrations.
The music only enhances a production that is already a lively one, with the action flowing smoothly from scene to scene (though a couple of loud squeaks during scene changes suggest that a little WD40 is probably needed). Anna Louizos’s sets and costume designs are picture perfect and lighting designer Natasha Katz deserves a mention for an eye-blinding (in a good way) finale.
Ultimately, School of Rock is a unique show that manages to “stick it to the man” while tugging at your heartstrings and tickling your funny bone. Some things in life are just meant to be fun, and School of Rock is one of them, so unleash your inner child and when you get home after the show be ready, at the very least, to bust out a little air guitar.
Performances are scheduled for January 31 through February 4 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-315-2525 or visit thehobbycenter.org. $35-$140.